A borough that only last year was being criticised for “erasing” the annual Black History Month celebrations, has had a turnaround in more ways than one.
After facing criticism from the local population, including councillors and an MP, for branding the annual celebration of people of African heritage under Diversity Month, Wandsworth council’s libraries reverted to using Black History Month (BHM) in its programming this October.
The person who conceived of BHM in Britain lived in Garfield Road, Battersea and, although today BHM has become well established across Britain – it’s been celebrated here since 1987, the story of how it came about and those who were instrumental in its birth are hardly known.
This is a challenge I took upon myself – to find out the little-known story of how it came about, by researching the original founding documents and interviewing some of the key players – these include former Lambeth council leader Linda Bellos, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, and Lord Paul Boateng.
So how did BHM come about in Britain? Well, it all started when Ghanaian-born Akyaaba Addai-Sebo was working at the GLC (Greater London Council) as a special projects co-ordinator in 1985.
This was just after the end of the GLC’s Anti-Racism Year campaign in 1984.
Mr Addai-Sebo realised that one of his female work colleagues was looking miserable. Upon enquiring as to why, his colleague told him that the night before, when she was putting her young son, named Marcus after the pan-Africanist icon Marcus Garvey, he asked her: “Mummy, why can’t I be white?”
Realising that there was an identity issue among children of African heritage, Mr Addai-Sebo decided to do something about it. And before the GLC was abolished by the Margaret Thatcher government in March 1986, Addai-Sebo, through the support of Ansel Wong, head of the GLC’s Ethnic Minority Unit, Mr Livingstone, and Lord Boateng, who was then the vice chairman of the Ethnic Minorities Committee, a raft of programmes were organised across London.
These included African history events at County Hall and various community centres, and black music concerts and talks in venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, where inner-London schoolchildren were bussed in to experience live music in wonderful surroundings.
There was also the ‘A History Of The Black Presence In London’ exhibition at the Festival Hall.
Mr Addai-Sebo, who first lived with CLR James in Brixton when he first arrived in London in 1984 as a political refugee from Ghana, before settling down at Garfield Road from 1985-1998, said: “We were determined to let Londoners, especially the children, know about the contributions Africa and Africans had made to London and the world, through the talks, concerts and exhibitions.”
When the GLC was finally abolished, some of the Labour-led boroughs, including Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, sought to continue certain aspects of the GLC’s work by forming the LSPU (London Strategic Policy Unit), and several of the former GLC staff, including Mr Addai-Sebo and Mr Wong, moved over from County Hall to Middlesex House, just north of the river in Vauxhall Bridge Road to become senior policy adviser and senior race equality adviser, respectively.
With the help of Mr Wong and the politicians, including Ms Bellos, who was the LSPU chairwoman, a programme, initially to mark the centenary of the birth of Mr Garvey, developed into the African Jubilee Year 1987-88 programme.
The year, which was launched with a concert and a speech by Zimbabwean First Lady Sally Mugabe at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster on July 31, 1987, was underscored by the African Jubilee Year Declaration.
Among the tenets of the Declaration, it enjoined the boroughs that signed up, to mark “the month of October 1987 and every October thereafter” as Black History Month.
The first official BHM event took place on October 1, 1987 at County Hall, where African drinks, or libations, were given out to start the proceedings. ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) deputy leader Bernard Wiltshire gave the introductory presentation, followed by presentations by American historian Dr Maulana Karenga and Kenyan women’s activist Wanjiru Kihoro.
“Mr Addai-Sebo said: “We wanted to leave a legacy that showed the African contribution not only to world civilisation from antiquity to the present time, but more specifically the contribution it has made, and continues to make, to London’s economic, social and political life.”
Following the demise of the LSPU in 1988, Mr Addai-Sebo worked with the Notting Hill Carnival management group. His last job in London, before going back to Ghana in 2012, was the international relations executive at Tribute Third Millennium, the company which organises mammoth causes events, such as the 1988 and 1990 Mandela concerts at Wembley Stadium.
“I am glad to see my time at Garfield Road is being documented,” said Mr Addai-Sebo, who is now involved in reforestation programmes in Ghana.
His address is being kept a secret for now, as there is talk of putting up a plaque to mark its connection to the birth of BHM in Britain.